A young person who find themselves homeless on leaving care is at significant risk of compounded social disadvantage, making everyday tasks we often take for granted extremely difficult.
In Australia there is an estimated 44,000 young people under the age of 25 who are ‘homeless’ on any given night. This accounts for around 42% of the overall homeless population. The actual figure is unknown but it is thought to be higher (ABS, 2011).
For a young person transitioning from OOHC to independent living, the risk of homelessness is significantly higher than that of other people.
Many young people in care do not have a choice as to whether they can stay in their current care situation and many do not have stable relationships with adults that will continue after they turn 18, that they can draw support from (Cashmore et al, 2006; Schofield, 2001). Often Leaving Care Plans do not include contingencies for when things do not go as planned and this can result in the care leaver becoming isolated and unpreapred.
It has been suggested that approximately 35 to 50 percent of young people who have been in OOHC will experience homelessness at some point (Dworsky, 2010).
Research has identified that people who were sleeping rough for extended periods of time can expect to die around 30 years before their peers who have a stable housing history (Crisis UK, 2012).
It is important to take a phased approach when transitioning from care to adult life. There are three key areas in which a young person can be supported for a smoother transition.
These key areas are:
Entry into care
- Proactive involvement and consultation with the young person when they first enter OOHC.
When a young person initially enters OOHC or has a change of worker, the caseworker should utilise this opportunity to build a relationship with the young person – set up a culture of participation. This should include an age appropriate understanding of why they are in OOHC, the role of their caseworker and their rights whilst in OOHC.
Consultation and participation with the young person are pivotal when preparing them for their future; this should be an ongoing process with the young person and actively reflect their specific needs.
Only 33% of young people in the CREATE Report Card 2013 reported that they had had involvement with their Leaving Care Plan.
Without participation, the young person will be less invested in their Leaving Care strategies, meaning that it will not be a true reflection of their needs post-care and ultimately prove to be ineffective. Those individuals who actively participate in the decisions that affect them have or gain personal power. They may learn, among other things, that their adverse experiences in childhood do not have to define them and that their future is partially their creation (Hall, 2012).
When a young person enters OOHC at a much older age, e.g. 14 years of age, the preparation for independence should start almost immediately. Caseworkers should try to identify any positive supports for the young person and try to involve them in the preparation for independence. Start with what is meaningful to them to build rapport, and then expand on this to build a holistic view of what is actually going on for them.
Throughout time in care
- Supporting the young person throughout their journey in OOHC.
A leaving care plan is not a set and forget strategy and transitioning to independence is more than where a person is going to live. It is important that preparation work with a young person encompasses all aspects of independence. To do this a planned approach should be taken to start the preparation at the earliest age deemed appropriate for the young person. Transitioning involves a holistic overview of all their needs and how these are going to be met. This should be done in partnership with the young person and all key stakeholders in their life. Rushing through the transition from care can potentially leave the young person in a vulnerable position in the future; there may be time constraints to consider but the support offered has to reflect the young person’s learning style and pace.
- Recognise individual strengths and needs.
It is important to recognise strengths the young person has and build on these; ask ‘what are the priority areas for development in order to help prepare this young person for transitioning?’ Support the young person to indicate what they believe is their strengths and areas for development. There may need to be some discussion negotiation/re-prioritising with the young person about the key priorities; but ultimately the plan should reflect the young person’s views.
Regularly assess/reassess the young person’s independence skills.
Be mindful that a street-wise demeanour is different to knowing how to live independently.
Bravado and troublesome behaviours often mask feelings of fear and powerlessness. Remember to regularly check in with the young person and allow them time to process information; and offer a support person/advocate where appropriate.
Where possible, for a young person with additional needs/disabilities, planning should begin at a much earlier age. Connecting the young person to relevant services and ensure they are invited to any reviews/relevant meetings. Involving them at the earliest possible stage will help familiarise the young person with the worker/services available to them.
Kiraly (2011) noted that for some young people in kin care placements conversations about ‘leaving care’ or ‘leaving home’ may not be appropriate, however; workers can have conversations about growing up, becoming more independent, their future aspirations – possibly through education, employment and promoting independence skills.
The Plan should ideally include some ‘buffers’ for the young person, these may include strategies to manage a crisis and appropriate alternatives if the initial plans made do not work out as. This may be an alternative education/training course for the young person if their first choice doesn’t work out. Not being too specific in the plan is also important as it allows the young person to deviate their choice slightly if desired.
It is important to note that the alternatives offered must be suitable; it’s pointless to offer an alternative placement in a rural location to a young person who has lived and has their support network in Sydney. Alternatives must be realistic and in line with the young person’s views.
- Consider the best delivery format
Workers should be creative with the ways in which the Leaving Care Plan is documented, in a world where technology is advancing and there is a high probability that a paper copy of the plan could be lost or damaged. The worker could consider using multiple media, such as a written copy of the plan, saving the plan to a secure USB stick, cloud storage and/or an audio copy which would support a young person with literacy skills/learning difficulties. The young person should be aware that this is sensitive/confidential information pertaining to them, and that they should be cautious about who they share this with in order to protect their privacy.
- Aftercare support for young people entering adulthood
Ensuring that contingencies are in place for the young person when they exit OOHC will help to safeguard against adverse experiences and hardship. Many young people report that they did not feel sufficiently prepared for independence and many of them do not have reliable adults they can turn to for support (Browne et al, 2012).
Isolation can be a real concern for a young person who has transitioned from OOHC. They often go from a relatively supportive environment with a number of people assisting them to living semi/independently, where they have regular involvement from people, to an environment with limited involvement/contact with support services/people. This can be a very difficult change for a young person; research conducted in NSW found that 57 percent of young people reported they had contemplated suicide 12 months after statutory care ended (Cashmore & Paxman, 1996, 2007). This is why it is essential we have ongoing contact with the Young Person.
Ensure that there are appropriate plans in place; for support for the young person post-care, this can help to eliminate feelings of isolation. These plans may include support/financial assistance to visit family/previous carers whom the young person has a close relationship with. This is especially important to consider when a young person has moved/been placed out of their established community or has cultural connections to a specific area; this can help with their identity and maintaining those important links. There is a growing awareness that for those youth aging out of foster care without permanency through reunification or legal guardianship, it is critical that they have a positive relationship with at least one caring adult who they can always turn to when the need support (Dworsky & Courtney, 2009).
For many years now, research has highlighted that too many young people leave statutory care unprepared for adult life, lacking the basic skills required to survive and at a much greater risk of unfavourable outcomes, including homelessness.
Evidence suggests that preparation, participation and clear planning are fundamental to successful transitions for young people from OOHC to independence. Transitioning from care is not a ‘single’ event, it is evolving process over a period of time, this period will vary for each young person, due to their own personal circumstances, but it is still a gradual process.
Only after a young person has exited care can we accurately assess how well prepared they were for the transition; but often by this point it is too late. The Leaving Care Plan should be less of a ‘written document’ and more of a useful ‘tool kit’ that they can reference when necessary.
Written by Alana Caveney
For more information about this and other research conducted by Barnardos please go to MyStory Research and Publications.